“Anger is the one emotion that we learn early.”
Before we begin this section, just a reminder: As we have said before, it may seem sometimes we are overgeneralizing about the characteristics we observe in men. It is true that many men have communication and relationship skills that equal or surpass those of women. But, generally speaking, the behaviors we are discussing in this book faithfully describe what is reported by men in our discussion groups and seminars.
I like to “spill the beans” as early as possible. Bottom line: if you want to be successful in ALL relationships, the best thing you can do is to make the other person feel heard and spend time with them. If you already do that perfectly, you may skip the rest of the chapter. Otherwise, read on.
There’s a disturbing revelation in Dr. John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.1 At about the age of 7, boys tend to stop playing with girls and pursue more violent activities with other boys, paying less and less attention to relationships. Think about the implications of that. This means that at a very early age, boys (for whatever reason) have not only started down a path of less attention to relationships, but have also begun to focus more and more on violent behavior. Over a lifetime, this can impact everything from connection with a partner to communication and relationship maintenance at work. As a boy, we get the message that relationship stuff is “girly.” This obviously changes in adulthood because in our Men in BalanceTM survey, 65% of men say they feel isolated in their personal life, and 67% would like to be better able to open up and talk with other men about personal issues.2
Anger is Okay
Of course some of men’s tone deafness in relationships is benign, but as we have noted before, men sometimes have difficulty expressing emotions–with the exception of anger. This is the one emotion that we learn early and seems to be universally allowed/encouraged for men and boys. The result is that we overuse this emotion and fail to develop our use of others (e.g. empathy). Consequently, the risk is that we may become one-dimensional in our emotional makeup, and, as a result, miss out on the fruits of close relationships and fail to learn key skills such as conflict resolution and collaboration. An important note here: If you are having serious anger issues or your partner has expressed concern about your expression of anger, get help. This is not likely something you can fix by yourself. Start with some books about anger management, then get some counseling. Unmanaged or unmanageable anger can be a sign of untreated depression, which is anger turned inward. A competent counselor can tell you if this is true for you. If you don’t know already, you need to learn the source of the anger.
Honesty in Conversation
Our clumsiness in relationships may cause us to have difficulty fully representing ourselves in conversation, especially with women. There are two reasons for this: First, as noted earlier, we tend to protect women from our negative feelings. Secondly, because we generally believe women have better conversation skills than we do, we default to the position of minimal interaction as our (inadequate) defense. We emotionally shut down and minimally participate in the discussion. As you might expect, this can cause significant problems in close relationships.
Think about your last disagreement with your partner. How did it end?
- With anger and hostility that seethed over a day or more?
- With calm discussion about the issue and a mutually agreed-upon resolution?
- With the issue being swept under the rug for the moment?
Unless it was successfully resolved, chances are it is still a “live issue” and is causing distance between you and your partner. Enough of these instances, and the distance is difficult to overcome, so we end up with jaded, joyless relationships or open hostility and resentment. Ideally, we want to live without expectations—as impossible as that sounds. But as my former pastor, Dr. Jody Seymour, says, “An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.”
How much better would your relationship be if you could learn and consistently use good negotiation and conflict resolution methods? This is probably the most difficult work of any relationship, and I submit it is much more difficult for men. Our culture does not encourage us to negotiate solutions. Rather, it encourages us to win – – sometimes at all cost. (See the Lesson on Competition.)
So, we may win the battle but lose the relationship. I once knew a salesman who insisted on being technically right in any discussion, even with a prospect, and his sales tanked. As my counselor friend Philip Loydpierson says, you can choose to be right or you can choose to have a relationship.
Why don’t we know how to do this?
It is a shame that our public education system does not place more emphasis on the importance of relationship problem-solving and negotiation. As a result, neither men nor women feel totally confident about successfully addressing the multiple issues in intimate relationships. And it seems that since so little emphasis is placed on this for men in particular, we mistakenly assume this is not an important skill for us to have or teach to our sons.
In recent years, the landscape has decidedly changed where communication and relationship skills in marriage are concerned. I hear more and more men saying that their partner has left them or threatened to leave because of their poor communication skills or lack of expression. Or their partner feels empty and deprived in the relationship because they want more connection. Often, men struggle
with what to make of that request. Our response is to make valiant efforts to be better listeners, thinking that if we can just listen to all of her problems and offer solutions, things will settle down. Not likely. Women rightfully expect us to simply and fully interact with them, share our feelings and empathize with their feelings instead of disregarding their feelings as illogical or unimportant. (See the section on Intimacy). When the problems reach this stage, usually couples are seeking counseling for what they describe as a “communication” problem. More likely, it is a relationship problem that men feel hopelessly unable to fix, which adds to their frustration.3
Good news! There is also a lot of evidence that children from families that make valuing relationships with each other a priority tend to avoid some of the problems normally associated with children growing up, especially teenagers.
What I’m suggesting here is that, as men, we tend to settle for shallow connection with our partners, our families, and others. So we end up with relationships, including marriages, that are far from fulfilling.
Also, because of our clumsy or absent expression of our needs to our partner, we tend to get angry and resentful that our needs are not being met, feeling that she is withholding the granting of our needs. It may seem this is a deliberate action on her part, but the fact is we may be expecting her to read our mind and respond to our needs–even though we haven’t voiced them! (There are some co-dependent women who will try to read our minds routinely and it might feel good at first, but it is generally unhealthy.) Reminder: The only way to get love or affection is to offer it.
Ironically, at the same time we are accusing.her of withholding, we may be failing to provide her with deep interaction and a way of relating that would make her feel valued in the relationship–and therefore willing to give us what we need. And so a downward spiral begins which detours through a counselor’s office on the way to divorce court. How much simpler and more fulfilling if we could truly learn to listen empathically to each other. By the way, voicing our needs appropriately encourages her to do the same!
A reader of our newsletter recently offered that to resolve conflict, she and her husband agree to let each other speak uninterrupted for 2 minutes each. Then after several cycles, each tries to summarize the other’s position. Not bad.
In her relationship seminars, consultant Alison Armstrong talks about women needing to provide a “meadow report” when they reunite with their man at the end of the day–which is likely to frustrate him. It is as if a woman has visited a beautiful meadow recently (think metaphorically here) and insists on reporting on every tree and flower and animal she has seen because that level of detail is significant to her. Meanwhile her partner restlessly waits to hear some problem he can solve. Of course, there is no problem, so he may wonder why she gushes all this unusable information–since he sees his “job description” primarily as problem solver. (The report might also be about shopping, girlfriends, gossip, people at work, etc.) This tendency on the part of women to broaden the conversation is different from men who often tend to narrow the conversation.
I remember when my oldest daughter came home from her first few weeks at college and she began to tell me about the problems with her roommate. I offered, “So have you tried…..” She said, “Dad, I don’t need you to fix it, I just need you to listen.” Ouch.
Men who are successful in their intimate relationships understand that her need for dialogue about the details of her day is an important part of her make-up and part of expressing her wish to connect more deeply. We are wise to acknowledge, accept, and value it.
We must see our role as more than a problem solver and try to become less task-driven. Our tendency to want to solve a problem gets in the way of our truly listening to what she says, and usually listening is primarily what she wants and expects. But we try to find the problem in what she said and offer a solution. While this may be a noble gesture, it is typically not what she expects or wants. So once again we get labeled as someone who cannot listen or is simply not interested.
If we can learn to truly listen with interest and empathy, it can be magic. Yes, there are gender differences in the things we focus on in conversation, but we need to make an effort to get closer to each other by trying to understand what the other person values and emphasizes. Hint: If you’re looking for something to do during this time, just remember that your assignment is to listen, make her feel heard. That is what you are to DO. It will help if you can show some interest also, but keep in mind she likely isn’t expecting you to remember all of this, much less do anything about it. (Whew! That’s a relief!) If you’re still confused, say something like, “You’ve shared a lot of information with me. Is there something you need other than for me to just hear it?” The point is to stay with her agenda, not yours—and relax and enjoy her communication with you.
Just one more note: It is important to give up any romantic notions that we are supposed to be in lockstep with our partner in communication or thinking. That’s impossible, since we are two totally separate people. And this sort of thinking interferes with a realistic, practical approach to the relationship.
As men, it does not come easy for us to admit failure. Success is the golden grail and the only acceptable outcome. This has been drilled into us since we were toddlers. So, it may be difficult for us to acknowledge that we have a communication problem or that we need to work on our relationship skills, especially if we are getting along fine at work or with our buddies. So our approach may be denial and false bravado. In other words, we not only deny we have a problem and charge ahead as though nothing is wrong, we disregard the importance of communication and relationship skills with statements that tend to discount their value (“That’s just too soft and mushy”). It just doesn’t seem to fit our definition of masculinity.
Impact on Our Career Path
Poor relationship skills can sometimes torpedo our career path, resulting in being passed over for promotion and, in some extreme cases, being fired. My partner and I have coached many executives who have been successful for years, especially in technical areas, but then suddenly are fired because of relationship or communication issues. This comes as a total shock to these people because they have never been told they have a problem. Suddenly, the bad habits they have developed over a lifetime reach a tipping point in a specific situation, and it results in a serious enough incident to cause them to lose their job. Or the cumulative weight of bad habits and years of poor communication simply becomes difficult to ignore. The outcome is the same.
So one lesson men can learn is the importance of open communication and what I call win-win conversations, conversations in which both parties get what they want (for the most part) and leave the conversation feeling valued, whole and intact, and even encouraged. Please don’t read this as “playing nice” or being artificially accommodating. It is much deeper than that. I talk more about that in the next chapter. (There is also more on this in my book, (having) Better Conversations, available on Amazon.)
Teach the Children Well
As men, we also need to be thinking about the messages we’re transmitting to our children, especially our sons. The model of masculinity we present to them will likely be
adopted pretty much undiluted unless we are just clueless, in which case they may vow they will never behave like us.
The way we treat their mother will likely become the way they eventually treat their life partner. If we are dismissive of her input, argue with her intuitive approaches, disregard her wishes and do what we want regardless, we are sending the message to our sons that the input of our partner, their mother, is not important, and it is “manly” to ignore it. Further, we send the message that she is simply an obstacle to getting what we want. It is important to present a healthy, viable relationship model to our sons. Maybe by doing this, we can begin to break the cycle of male-female misunderstanding that has existed for generations.
And I feel the need to challenge Paul in Ephesians 5:22 when he says, “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Sometimes this is used as a rule for “Christian” marriage. Even taking into the different culture in which that was written, today’s women think and act for themselves, as they should. But the rigid, literal interpretation of this scripture can be deadly to marriages today. I wish he had said, “Wives, partner with your husbands. And husbands, respect your wives.”
Our Relationship with Men
While we often settle for unsatisfactory relationships with our partner because of our poor relationship skills, this is exponentially more likely in our relationships with other men. We typically don’t think of our relationships with men as having much to offer us. In fact, we might see other men as competitors, much as the caveman would have seen another man as a competitor for food and sustenance.
It is disappointing that our conversations with other men are typically limited to sports, sex, and occupation. Our first question when we meet another man, in fact, is typically about what he does for a living. This helps us size up the threat he represents and unless something causes us to pursue the discussion further, we are likely to switch the topic to sports or some “masculine” thing we might have in common. Or we limit the chatter to inconsequential small talk. The point is that the conversation is shallow and never gets into emotional areas or how either of us feels about anything.
It reminds me of an incident that was described in one of our sessions: The participant reported that the night before, he and his wife had visited another couple. After dinner, the men went to the garage while the women stayed in the kitchen cleaning up. The conversation in the garage was mostly benign and very little of substance was exchanged. On the ride home, his wife asked, “What did you guys talk about?” He responded that not much was said and gave no details. “Did he not tell you they are getting a divorce?” she asked incredulously. Of course, he had to say that no such discussion had taken place.
This is a great example of how little substantive information men tend to share with each other as opposed to how women readily share personal details. In fact, I have often said that men can spend an entire weekend together on a fishing or hunting trip and know very little about each other’s lives when they return Sunday night. By contrast, women can spend a lunch together and learn almost everything that is going on with each other– – while talking over each other enthusiastically. The result is that women tend to more easily form close bonds which provide a network of support that is available when they need it. Men, on the other hand, tend to be very slow to open up to one another personally. Con-sequently, when we have a difficult situation, we find ourselves with no one we can talk to. While we may pretend this is okay, the fact is we would love to have someone with whom we can open up and share, as confirmed in our online survey. In our survey 62% of men say they would like to be in a small group with other men.4
I believe this is one of the main reasons Men in BalanceTM has succeeded. The small group gives men a safe place to talk openly in a confidential environment about things that are troubling them in their personal lives or relationships. Most men see this as an unheard-of opportunity to open up to other men in a trusting environment, and they quickly see the value of having such supportive, non-judgmental relationships.
Incidentally, when I ask men whether they have another male friend to whom they feel close enough to talk with intimately, many times they will say they do. But when I press them for who this person is, they will say it’s a college roommate from years ago or a friend who has moved away. Yet they feel sure this person would respond quickly if he was needed, even coming for a visit. Not to say it can’t happen, but given our reluctance to open up to another man, much less our willingness to admit failure or vulnerability, it seems pretty unlikely we will talk to this person on any sort of regular basis or maintain any sense of closeness.
For me the value of having close relationships with men we can trust is a no-brainer. The fact is we need these connections just as much as our partners and not having them takes a toll on our personal lives. In our survey, nearly half of the men (46%) said they have NO close male friends in whom they could confide, yet most said they would like to be better able to open up and talk to other men.5
Someone has said (I wish I could remember who) that a good test for men and male friendships is this: Can you name the six men your wife would likely call as pall bearers for your funeral?
On a personal note, there are several men I am close to. I treasure these connections because we can talk about anything, including our own weaknesses, fears, and personal inadequacies as well as our successes. (Notice the high emotional and high trust content.) But these few relationships did not come easily. They came after testing the waters with guys to see how willing they were to talk about more substantive things.
One last note: If we do not have fulfilling relationships other than our marriage, we are probably placing a lot of pressure on our wife or partner to meet almost all our emotional needs. That is not fair to her and can be draining and tiring for her to accommodate.
It is never too late to begin focusing more on relationships. They are the glue which binds us to each other as humans. They require intellectual honesty, emotional honesty and lots of cultivating and tending to. But they provide the connection we must have to be all that we can be, as the Army says.
The Balanced Approach
We don’t need to re-invent ourselves, but we do need to pay more attention to developing and maintaining relationships.
|Keeping your balance
On the scale below put a ^ mark where you think you are in your care for relationships and another ^ where you would like to be and will work toward.
- How would you rate yourself in terms of overall communication within your personal relationships? How could improving your communication improve relationships?
- Have you been guilty of failing to share information or feelings with your partner out of a need to protect her?
- Do you have close male friends with whom you regularly confide? How comfortable are you expressing affection for other men, through hugs, empathic statements, etc.?
- Would you be comfortable asking your partner for feedback about how you interact with her and where improvement is needed?
- Have you been aware of treating your daughter(s) differently from your son(s)? Are you okay with the messages that may send?
- What can you do to improve your relationships generally, especially difficult ones and certainly the relationship with your partner?
- What about relationships with women at work? How could you improve them?
- Are you involved in an affair? Have you calculated the potential cost to your marriage? To your family? To your career? Are you willing to have this behavior end your marriage? What need is the affair really fulfilling? Hint: it is not sex.
Action Steps Men Can Take
- If you answered yes to having an active affair, end it now. It is unlikely this can end well. If you are unhappy with your marriage, get counseling or other help or get out of the marriage. Life is too short to do this to each other.
- Seek out a counselor or trusted mentor and focus on relationship work. The payoffs, spiritual, personal and professional can be huge.
- Ask your wife for a “report card” on how you are doing relating to her and your children. DO NOT allow yourself to get defensive. Just listen, then decide where you can make changes. Keep a record of your efforts, successes.
- Focus on listening intently in all your relationships, starting with those at home and work. Paraphrase what you hear for clarity. Then ask if you got it right before moving on.
- Next time you are in a conversation with another man, instead of only talking about sports or the job, ask a question such as “What kinds of things have you learned in your marriage?” or “What have you found helpful in dealing with teenagers?” The goal is to take the conversation to a deeper level.
- Focus for several days on one relationship. REALLY try to better understand that person and their thoughts, needs.
- Record your commitments on the Personal Action Plan on page 194.
Action Steps Women Can Take
- Be patient with your partner’s attempts to talk about feelings. Don’t interrupt or finish his sentences. Paraphrase what you hear.
- Ask him to identify feelings, not just what he thinks. Be patient. This may be hard for him.
- In this conversation, do not appear smug or intimidating. Keep your voice soft, inviting. Hold his hand. Don’t judge or correct what he says.
- Be honest with him about how you feel about his behaviors, especially anger or any hints of violence.
- Reassure him you are his friend on this issue, willing to help. But end the discussion when he says to. Go slowly.
- Ask questions to clarify what he says, but don’t offer opinions unless he asks.
- If your partner decides to take the risk of being vulnerable and expresses his deep emotions (fears, anxieties, etc.) to you, treat them with respect. Don’t use them as a weapon to further wound him.
- Remember that praise is a big motivator for change in many men.
- If your partner already demonstrates a good model in this area, tell him directly.
|How men get wounded….
Below are some of the ways men get wounded early in life. These wounds affect your life in multiple ways, especially in relationships.
· Death of a parent
· Divorce of parents
· Physical abuse
· Sexual abuse
· Witnessing a traumatic event
· Shaming by teacher, parent or friend(s)
· Accident or disabling event
· Serious violation of trust by a trusted friend
· (Please add any others that might have affected you.)
It is important to learn how these events have affected your actions or beliefs. If you have not successfully worked through the trauma, please get counseling. Your life can be so much more fulfilling. I know this from experience. Jot down below any commitment you are willing to make in this regard.